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Art is always with us. Interview with Francesca Casadio

Art is always with us. Interview with Francesca Casadio

12/06/2020

Francesca Casadio

The pandemic forced the long-term closure of museums, which have only just recently begun to reopen to the public, and not without difficulty. Yet the love of art has been kept alive thanks to a digital technology that has offered a different but effective way to enjoy it. Here is the story of this difficult period and the innovative offerings of Francesca Casadio, Grainger Executive Director of Conservation and Science at the Art Institute of Chicago (whose resources can be accessed at https://www.artic.edu/visit-us-virtually).

What role has art played during the pandemic?

Given the thousands of victims and millions of unemployed the pandemic has left in its wake, it may seem frivolous to talk about art and its importance. Yet art continues even now to play a fundamental role, offering an intuitive, emotional, immediate and profound language by which to make sense of our inner world and the world that surrounds us. When we appreciate something – a drawing, a print, a sculpture or a painting – we say that it “speaks to us”. That language of the soul goes right to the heart and unites us with other human beings even in the isolation of our apartments or in our own tiny personal microcosms. Art hones the muscles of our empathy; our ability to recognize that others feel as we do and channel those feelings through a creative gesture that, for us who receive it, becomes a gateway to other worlds or a mirror to our own souls. In brief, art, in a period of crisis like this one, takes us elsewhere and helps us to feel less alone.

While awaiting a complete reopening, what instruments can help in the virtual enjoyment of artworks?

The pandemic has vastly accelerated the evolution of the significance of the digital enjoyment of art. Many art galleries and the major international art fairs have arranged for virtual spaces; artists have created works that use virtual reality and let us “float” in our living rooms – an exceptional example of which are the “augmented reality” sculptures of the artist KAWS that anyone can download free at https://app.acuteart.com/); Google’s arts and culture app can be used to apply filters that transform your own photos into artworks by Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo (https://blog.google/outreach-initiatives/arts-culture/transform-your-pho...) – fantastic innovations that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible.

How is the Art Institute di Chicago set up?

At the Art Institute, we offer children coloring books inspired by our collection, guided tours through the most important parts of the museum, interactive features that teach them about our collection, virtual tours of our exhibition on El Greco which, as a result of the pandemic, had to close just a week after its opening. We have blogs that recommend art films associated with our collection or that offer parents suggestions on how to repair toys directly from a restoration expert who usually works on priceless masterpieces. We have loads of resources for teachers (https://www.artic.edu/learn-with-us/educators/tools-for-my-classroom/res...), including one that I am particularly proud of: Art + Science lesson plans. This connects back to my background as a chemistry expert specialized in the study of artworks. Although my role has changed and I manage scientific research in the field of art restoration, I am convinced that art museums have an enormous potential for disseminating the importance of science to our society. It would make me very happy if, through the power of art, I was able to inspire young people – especially girls – to choose to study chemistry, physics or engineering.

We know about digital libraries. Have art collections also been digitalized?

Digitalization projects have existed for some years now, and that is why the Art Institute was ready when the pandemic struck: 75% of our collection of over 300,000 works has been made digitally accessible, even in 3D, and we are working on programs that will allow viewers to rotate objects in order to see them from various angles. This is already possible with our on-line catalogues, which let the visiting public get up close to our Matisses and Monets (https://www.artic.edu/digital-publications), and without being scolded by the security guards! Last year we were able to make 50,000 of these pieces available to the public (https://www.artic.edu/open-access/open-access-images); every time a browser is opened, a new artwork from the collection comes up, offering a daily moment of joy, surprise and discovery. You can also have fun with our search engines: by applying various filters, you can select a work of art based, for example, on a certain color (https://www.artic.edu/articles/773/inspirationtheres-a-filter-for-that-a...). We even offer virtual backgrounds for Zoom; so instead of being in a video-conference while sitting on your bed, you can be calling from Van Gogh’s famous bedroom. In short, even though for me it has always been essential to experience a work of art in person, all these instruments – including social media – bring art into the daily lives of millions of people, some of whom would never have set foot in a museum, and that I find that wonderful.

Is there an artwork you feel particularly evokes what we are going through now?

Choosing a single piece of art is difficult but two in the Art Institute’s collection do come to mind: one is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (https://www.artic.edu/artworks/111628/nighthawks). Hopper’s work has been cited by many as symbolizing the isolation our society has experienced as it’s tried to contain the spread of the virus. My museum has the privilege of exhibiting one of his most famous pieces; what many perhaps are unaware of is that, in reality, it is possible that this painting contains a message of hope (anyone interested can find more information at https://www.artic.edu/articles/808/nighthawks-as-a-symbol-of-hope). Hopper loved roaming New York City at night, and this image of a lighted diner, which he painted after the tragic bombardment of Pearl Harbor in 1941 when the city often ran blackout drills in anticipation of possible other air attacks, could symbolize the hope of a return to socializing in a lighted public space. Isn’t that perhaps what many of us are yearning for after all these months shut in at home?

The other I would suggest is “Sky Above the Clouds” by Giorgia O’Keefe, (https://www.artic.edu/artworks/100858/sky-above-clouds-iv) because it makes me see the positive side of this crisis, and the fact that the sky is bluer now because we have all stopped; but also because it gives me the strength to be optimistic about the future and to dream of when I will again look down over the clouds from an airplane bringing me back to my family in Italy, from whom I suddenly feel far more distant than usual.

 

Francesca Casadio is Grainger Executive Director of Conservation and Science at the Art Institute of Chicago, where in 2003 she founded a laboratory for the scientific analysis of artworks. She holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Milan.